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Holy Warriors by Jonathan Phillips – Book Commentary/Review August 4, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, history, medieval period, the crusades.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

With Holy Warriors, Jonathan Phillips has written a significant contribution to the literature on the period of history commonly referred to as “the Crusades.” It is a period that occurred long ago, but resonates into the present-day, especially in light of recent events, and the use of the period in the propaganda of fanatic Muslim terrorists. Phillips follows the common chronological approach, going through the numbered crusades as agreed by general historical consensus. But he mines the volumes of material available for some fresh angles and insights: 

  • He refutes with specific evidence the ridiculous idea that the Crusades were some sort of imperialist colonization by western European nations. Sure, some nobles sought to better their positions. But for most, going on a fighting pilgrimage later labeled as a “crusade” was a serious economic sacrifice. Most “crusaders” wanted to return home as quickly as possible, creating the chronic manpower shortage that plagued the crusader era for the western European crusader states. To analyze this as “imperialism” is an anachronistic, class-warfare treatment of history. Religion mattered to the crusaders; Jerusalem was a sacred city worth fighting for just for its sacred status, as strange as that may seem to our largely secularized society.
  • Phillips uses Muslim sources to bring fresh perspectives to this period, and spends a great deal of time analyzing the history of “jihad,” a term used frequently today, a term often oversimplified and misused by both sides of the argument.
  • He offers the story of Queen Melisande of Jerusalem, the half western European, half Armenian woman who operated effectively in a male-dominated world. We think of Eleanor of Aquitaine as one of those rare women who could actually wield power during the Middle Ages. Queen Melisande was another woman cast in that mold. She might make a great subject for a historical novel!
  • His depictions of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin are balanced and accurate, avoiding the current temptation in the popular culture to over-vilify Richard and over-glorify Saladin. This is a subject dear to me, the subject of my novel, The Swords of Faith.
  • In later chapters, Phillips expands the concept of the “crusades” to analyze other Christian/Muslim conflicts. He offers a credible connection between Columbus’s voyage to the “New World” and the desire for Christians to capture Jerusalem.
  • In his final chapter, “New Crusaders,” he discusses the idea of “crusade” up to the present day. His discussion highlights the fact that the word “crusade” has now evolved to a have broader meaning—a “crusade” can mean any dedicated effort to fight a perceived obstacle or evil. But it is a word to be used with caution, because the narrower meaning is so explosive in traditional Muslim circles—it brings to mind the massacre in Jerusalem almost a thousand years ago. This double-meaning ensnared President George W. Bush, who used the broader meaning of “crusade” when declaring his “war on terror,” but gave Osama bin Laden a propaganda gift by allowing him to trumpet President Bush’s word to his audiences and choose to focus his indignation on the narrower meaning. This propaganda gift allowed him to call the United States forces “crusaders,” when they had little if any resemblance to the crusaders of the Middle Ages. (See my essay “No, It’s Not the Crusades.”  

Jonathan Phillips’ Holy Warriors offers readers interested in this topic an opportunity to master familiar material, and to add some fresh perspectives. I recommend this book to anyone interested in a thoughtful, balanced and objective look at this explosive subject.

Holy Warriors by Jonathan Phillips

Holy Warriors by Jonathan Phillips

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